Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Universities vie to attract more Indian students

EDUCATIONAL ZEAL Eager and smart and thus quite unlike the surly mobs of the West, Indian students are just what the groves of academe want


The late Rajiv Gandhi, the last of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to be prime minister of India, had a quip for why so many of his country's bright, young people were leaving home for the West. His pithy reply to critics was: "Better brain drain than brain in the drain." It seems today's whiz kids agree.

Forsaking their own often tatty universities for the ivory towers of the richer world, Indian students are now the world's most wanted. Eager and smart and thus quite unlike the surly mobs of the west, Indian students can now be found in the front rows of lecture halls from California to Canberra.

This zeal for education, and the ability to pay for it, have not gone unnoticed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been wooing groups of Indian students, patiently answering questions from bespectacled teenagers. China, which has only 800 Indian students, is desperate for more, flashing cash and scholarships for physics lectures in Mandarin.

Wearing the mortar board and gown of Oxford University, Chris Patten has this week joined the queue of suitors, bemoaning the fact that not enough Indian students are coming to study among the dreaming spires. There are only 17,000 Indian students in the UK, compared with 80,000 in the US.

"We have to fight hard to keep our position in the world league table," he said. The problem, he insists, is one of image: India views its former colonial master as "a conservative, stuffy" place.

There is some truth in the accusation. News stories in India portray the US as a land of unbridled opportunity, where Indian scientists and engineers have made it big (the estimated net worth of emigrants to the US from the Indian Institute of Technology alone is US$30 billion).

The UK carries with it the baggage of its imperial past: a class-bound society in which where you come from still matters more than where you are going.

Yet Patten the former politician also knows that lurking behind this apparent challenge is an opportunity: The US' position in Indian hearts is not unassailable. Last year foreign applications to US graduate schools fell by almost a third, and actual enrolment dropped by 6 percent.

The UK did leave India an important legacy: the English language. And while Indian students are starting to look beyond the US, they still like to speak the lingua franca. In recent years European universities have seen their recruitment rise as they introduce English-language courses. Australia, too, is fast rising in the estimation of Indian students. Bollywood blockbusters such as Salaam Namaste, which focused on the beach antics of Indian expats down under, have done Australia's image no end of good.

Patten's mission is a timely one, as the issue may be a matter of life and death for western institutions. Many universities in the developed world would go under if foreign students suddenly returned home. India is one of the biggest exporters of students in absolute numbers, its educational export making up 5 percent of all those studying abroad. Little wonder people are bothered about where its brightest brains are going.

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